“I would have perished”


This is my final paper for Hebrew Exegisis. Basically, it is a sermon (exposition) on the passage I have been studying all semester long – Psalm 119:89-92. It is a bit long, but I thought I would post it. The psalm has a lot of personal significance for me – if you want to know why, you can read the end of the sermon.

Introduction

Our text is Psalm 119:89-92, but in order to understand the great treasure of this text I want to first lay some background for you. We don’t know who wrote Psalm 119, and so it makes it difficult to say anything about him with certainty.1 But there are some clues in the text that will help us gain and understanding of his life. We know that he was a young man, and that he loved the Lord deeply, desiring to follow after God in all that he did. We can gather that he didn’t live in Israel, but rather was in a foreign land, viewing the place he lived in as only temporary, looking to the day when he would return to Israel. We also know that he was extremely smart – using a somewhat simple poetic form in Hebrew, the alphabet acrostic. If you look in your Bibles you will see the psalm divided by Hebrew letters or perhaps the English transliteration – the section we are looking at tonight is “lamed.” “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Poetry” states that, “An acrostic poem in which the letters of the alphabet are used to form lines.” It seems simple enough at first, I mean, how hard can it be? “Apples are good, Blueberries too; Cherries are sweet, Do you conceit?” OK, so maybe not THAT easy. But the author of Psalm 119 did something very unique, something that was never equaled in any of the Ancient Near Eastern texts. He went for eight lines of poem for each Hebrew letter, there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, times eight equals 176 lines–each following the strict rules of the alphabet acrostic, every line beginning with the Hebrew letter of its section. It is the longest chapter in the Bible. Above all this, the psalmist put one of eight different words used to refer to God’s Law in almost every line of the whole psalm.2 Truly an amazing feat, and it allows us to begin to see the genius behind the poem. It is most likely because of this giftedness, as it flowed out to all areas of his life that he is in the midst of a great trial, for he writes of enemies who want him dead. It seems that the author of this psalm became so successful in his service to his captors that the princes in the land of his exile were jealous, scheming and plotting on how to get rid of him for good. You might say, OK, that’s good to know, but so what? I tell you these things because I want you to understand where the author of Psalm 119 is coming from. Maybe think of it this way: imagine what it would be like if you were a small boy or girl in Europe during World War II, living France. You hear of Germany’s great army and how war has broken out. Your father has left to fight, never to return. It’s just you, your mother, and your siblings. You listen to the radio every day, and each day the German army comes closer, until one day, you can hear them outside your house. They take you, they separate you from your family, you hear the screams of your mother as she calls for you. But soon, they are silent, and all you can hear is the rumble of the transport truck they placed you in. You are on your way to Germany, to serve the needs of the Führer. Then on top of all this, there are now men who hate you, evil wicked men who desire to kill you and are at this very moment plotting, making plans on how they might take you out. What would you be feeling? What would you be thinking? Perhaps you would feel like this: “ My soul languishes for Your salvation; I wait for Your word. My eyes fail with longing for Your word, While I say, “When will You comfort me?” Though I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget Your statutes. How many are the days of Your servant? When will You execute judgment on those who persecute me? The arrogant have dug pits for me, Men who are not in accord with Your law. All Your commandments are faithful; They have persecuted me with a lie; help me!” (Ps. 119:81-86).3

The Psalmist is in a perilous situation, he doesn’t see a way out, he cries out to God, but it doesn’t seem like God is listening, it doesn’t seem like God even cares. Though my life has never been in danger because of my belief in God, I can relate on some level with the Psalmist as I think over my life. We all face difficulty in this life, we all come upon hard times – as it is written in Job 7:1 “…man is born for trouble, As sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). In response to trials we see people respond in different ways: some enter into depression, others take out their frustration on others in rage, and some just run as far away from their problems as they can. As we come to tonights passage, what is your initial response when things get tough in your life? How do you respond when things don’t go your way? Does your first reaction honor the Lord? What does it look like to honor the Lord in the hard times of life? Does it mean we are happy all the time? Does it mean we never question God, trusting fully in His sovereign will to do what is best for us? There are tons of questions that come into our minds as we face trials. This psalm comes from a man who had these same questions. The author of this psalm suffered great hardship, and yet as we will see tonight, he remained faithful to the Lord through it all. Let’s look together at this amazing psalm, a psalm which through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit shows us the key to endurance through suffering.

I. The Depths of Despair (vv. 81-88)4

In order to show you this key, we must begin with the part of the psalm that is the darkest. It is right before the passage we are going to focus on tonight – I most of this section once already, so let’s just briefly take a closer look. “My soul languishes for Your salvation; I wait for Your word” (Ps. 119:81). Notice the psalmist’s deeply personal words; he doesn’t just say “I..this…I that…” but uses intensely emotional words, “my soul,” “Oh God my soul is dying within me! I am tired of waiting, I can’t hold on much longer!” “My eyes fail with longing for Your word, While I say, ‘When will You comfort me?’” (Ps. 119:82). “I’ve waited so long, oh God, its as though my eyes have wearied out from staring too long, looking to the horizon for you to come save me, and yet you never come!” “Though I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget Your statutes” (Ps. 119:83). “I have stayed faithful to you God, but my suffering is destroying me and soon I will be useless to you, just like a wineskin gets charred and shriveled by being too close to a fire, becoming useless, so I am.” “How many are the days of Your servant? When will You execute judgment on those who persecute me?” (Ps. 119:84). “God how much more can I take before it kills me? Why are you taking so long to exercise judgment?” “The arrogant have dug pits for me, Men who are not in accord with Your law” (Ps. 119:85). “God I’m trying to live as you want me to, but these guys aren’t playing by the same rules! They’re out to get me using deceit and trickery!” “All Your commandments are faithful; They have persecuted me with a lie; help me!” (Ps. 119:86). And so goes the last few verses of this section. Do you hear the disparity in his voice? Do you hear the despair? Now, if the psalmist left off here, and ended his lament we would be left with this feeling of utter hopelessness, and maybe even doubt as far as God’s ability to help us when we encounter trials and difficulties. But he doesn’t end here. In fact, he now moves on to the center of the psalm, and something amazing happens. He finds great comfort in the midst of his suffering.

II. The Comfort of God’s Word5 (vv. 89-91)

“Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven. Your faithfulness continues throughout all generations; You established the earth, and it stands. They stand this day according to Your ordinances, For all things are Your servants” (Ps. 119:89-91). The psalmist comes out of the depths of despair soars to a lofty, heavenly perspective and finds comfort in, as one commentator puts it, “the great certainties.” He finds comfort in God’s Word. Why?

A. God’s Word is Firmly Settled in Heaven (v. 89)

Well, first because God’s Word is firmly settled in heaven–it never changes. “Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven” refers to the fact that God’s Word has endured for all eternity. If you look in many of your Bible’s notes you will probably see that the literal rendering of the term in the Hebrew is “stands firm.” It doesn’t move, it isn’t fickle or uncertain, it is “unalterably fixed,” secure, immovable. The teaching of men changes so often, their thoughts and ideas change so rapidly there is no time for them to be settled. But God’s Word, it is secure, firmly established, it is settled. This truth is heightened by the the phrase, “in heaven.” It is settled in heaven where no one can reach it, no one can influence it so as to cause God to go back on His word. It remains unchanged. And so the psalmist finds comfort because God’s Word is settled in heaven. Secondly, the psalmist finds comfort in God’s Word because it is from a faithful God.

B. God’s Word is from a Faithful God (v. 90)

“Your faithfulness continues throughout all generations…” (Ps. 119:90a). In the very nature of God, in His inner being He is faithful, stable, unwavering. This is of great comfort to the psalmist as he faces his dire situation, for though his situation is unknown and changing, God is totally dependable, and has been throughout all generations! What a great encouragement to remember this, that God is faithful!

As the psalmist thinks of God’s faithfulness, the illustration of creation comes to mind, “…You established the earth, and it stands” (Ps. 119:90). I mean look around, nature is governed by fixed laws, the earth spins on its axis, it doesn’t go crazy or something, it is consistent, faithful. The seasons, summer, fall, winter, spring – they all come at their due time. The oceans, stay where they should be, they don’t just one day end up on top of mountains or something, they are consistent. God is faithful, and so His creation demonstrates that faithfulness, as does His Word. When we see the world around us keeping its place – the laws of gravity consistently fixed, there is assurance that God, who created it all is faithful and that those who trust in Him will not be put to shame. The psalmist finds comfort in God’s Word because it if firmly settled in heaven and he also finds comfort in God’s Word because it finds its source in a Faithful God. Thirdly, the psalmist finds comfort in God’s Word because it is fully authoritative.

C. God’s Word is Fully Authoritative (v. 91)

“They stand this day according to Your ordinances, For all things are Your servants” (Ps. 119:91). As the psalmist looks a heaven, and sees the earth, that they stand, that they continue to exist and do not tumble into utter chaos.6 The reason they don’t is because God has commanded them through His ordinances, through His Word that they stand – and they obey God’s Word because absolutely EVERYTHING is God’s servant. God is the omnipotent creator, the Sovereign Lord of all creation, the preserver, the absolute governor of all things. Do you see the comfort that this is to the psalmist as he reflects on God’s authoritative Word? His life is full of chaos, things are all messed up, they are not as they should be, but he remembers – God is the Sovereign of the whole universe! There is nothing that He does not exercise control over! God is able and free to do whatever He wants to do, even in my situation, even, if I think it uncontrollable, unredeemable – it is not so to God! Oh, do you see this comfort? If God is for us, who can be against us? There is nothing too hard for our God! He is the Mighty Sovereign of the whole universe! The psalmist finds comfort in God’s Word because it is firmly settled in heaven, because it is from a faithful God, and because it is fully authoritative. With this, the psalmist then shifts to personalize these great truths, proclaiming that he has been saved from certain death because of his delight in God’s Word.

III. The Salvation of God’s Word (v. 92)

The psalmist says this: “If Your law had not been my delight, Then I would have perished in my affliction” (Ps. 119:92). He links everything together in this one verse. Without God’s all sufficient Word, he would have perished because of the weight of the trials he was under. Because the psalmist finds his joy in in this sure, faithful, authoritative Word, he is saved from death. The God who preserves, who upholds the heavens and the earth also preserves those who are His. The psalmist would have felt ready to give up and die in the grief of his suffering, in the despair that natural grows out of trouble, if not for this Word. In his darkest hour there is but one thing that keeps him going, that keeps him from despairing altogether – the very Word of God. This is the salvation of God’s Word, not that we would be delivered from our trials, but that amid our trials that we would not despair, but rather by our delight in God’s Word would be sustained, and saved from perishing under their weight. Even in the very fact that the psalmist is still alive he takes hope in, for as the Word of God stands firm, so do those under its influence. Dispite the affliction, he remains, he is upheld and stands, for God’s Word is his delight.

If you take the time later to read the whole of this psalm you will notice something after this section, the lamed section – the psalmist’s whole tone changes. Before this section we saw that the psalmist was at the end of his rope, crying out to God, wondering why God was taking so long to come to his aid, wondering if God was even listening. But now the psalmist is reminded of his great hope, for He serves the God of the universe, the God who has promised salvation to His people, the God who controls all things. While his troubles are not over, his perspective has changed, he is no longer so focused on his own desperate situation, but rather has risen to see things from God’s perspective, from an eternal perspective where God is working everything out for his good, for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. There is much to learn from this psalm, from this faithful man of God who has bared his heart before us – who battled with despair and overcame, by the power of God’s very Word.

Application

As we ponder this great comfort, and the great salvation the Word of God was to the psalmist – and as we think of our own lives, what can we learn? What can we learn from this passage, so that when we are in the midst of trials, we too will overcome and have true hope and joy in that suffering? Here are a few suggestions:

I. Go to God

This seems simple, and yet I think so often our first response when troubles come is not that we go to God with it in prayer. We go to ourselves, our friends, we go to family, we go to the world, to recreation, to entertainment. But we should learn from the psalmist – he writes to God, he brings his requests before the Lord because he knows God is the only one who can help him, God is the only one who can save him. We know this don’t we? We know that salvation comes only from the Lord, but why do we go elsewhere when troubles come? We must learn to go to God when trails come, for in Him alone is found salvation – He is our only hope!

II. Focus on What is True

As you read Psalm 119, there is something that is plainly seen throughout the whole – the psalmist focuses on what is true. In the midst of his complaints and questions, he always returns to the Word of God, the truth. You see, so often I think, in our difficulties we despair because we have failed to focus on what we know is true – we start believing lies, “There’s no hope, God doesn’t care about you, He’s forgotten you, you’ll have to work it out on your own.” But we must remember to bring our minds back onto that which is true, what the Word of God has revealed to be true. And by doing so, we will no longer despair, but great hope will be ours, by the grace of God.

III. Remember God Ordains Suffering

So often we feel that if we let God know we don’t like the situation that we are in, that we don’t like difficulty or suffering, that He is obligated to let us out – especially if we have been faithful to Him, I mean, if we have been faithful, we deserve a good life, don’t we? While it is true, that sometimes God does choose to deliver us from out of our trials, other times He leaves us in. Remember the psalmist’s situation didn’t change as he was praying and asking God for deliverence. Rather he acknowledged the fact that God had ordained his affliction for his own benefit, and that “it was good” that he was afflicted, because it caused him to better know God. Think of Job – what great suffering he went through, and how time after time he pleaded his case, desiring to be freed from his suffering. But God did not respond right away did He? God, in His own time delivered Job from his suffering, and oh the glory, oh the joy that was Job’s after coming through such affliction! “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You” (Job 42:5). God’s knowledge is greater than ours, we must remember that He sovereignly ordains suffering in our lives, as His children, that we might grow and be perfected. Would you have it any other way? Would you rather not suffer and be far away from your Lord? Or would you have it, that He would cause you to endure much pain and suffering that you might come to a deeper and greater knowledge of Him? Oh, may we never curse our sovereign God for our suffering, but rather count it pure joy!

Conclusion

I wanted to end tonight on a very personal note, because this passage has a lot of personal significance to me. As a lot of you know, I served as a missionary to Cambodia, in South East Asia for three years before moving here to attend seminary. A lot of times people ask if I ever missed home, or what food I missed the most – and to be honest, the Lord was very gracious to me, for there were few times that I ever was homesick, or really craved some food. It’s not to say that I didn’t miss my family or friends, but it was more that the joy of serving the Lord, the joy of doing what He called me to do, overcame my sadness. But that was not the case all of the time. There was one time I remember very vividly – it was the only time I was brought to tears because of being homesick. I had just gotten home – I lived with about ten Cambodian young men who I was discipling – and our cook had prepared dinner and it was waiting on the stove. I took the lid off the pot in order to see what was for dinner, and as I did I smelled something that smelt almost identical to a stew that my mom used to cook. I lost it right then. I went up into my room and sat on my bed. I took my Bible out and started reading. I don’t remember where I began, only that I opened to the Psalms. I soon came to Psalm 119 and read all the way up to verse ninety-two. And right as I read, If Your law had not been my delight, Then I would have perished in my affliction.” All my homesickness went away. It reminded me how true it was – that if not for God I would be dead already. This suffering, this pain is not too heavy, it is not too difficult, because of God and the promises of His Word. His Word is my delight, I need nothing else, all I need is Him – though it is hard to be away from my family and friends – it is nothing, for I have Christ. He is my salvation, I will not despair, but will hope again in Him.

I share this to encourage you, to give you hope – to you who are burdened, who are in the midst of trial right now – there is hope for you! Do not despair, but rather look to God for salvation, look to the Lord to be sustained – for He is more than able to keep you from falling, and will be as a rock to you in the midst of the storm.

 

1While some older commentators assumed David wrote this psalm, they did so in error, and after studying the evidence, it is better not to try and draw any conclusion on authorship, but rather focus on internal evidence and the application of the psalm directly to the reader.

2There is some debate about whether the psalmist uses eight or ten synonyms for the Law of God, but after evaluating the evidence I side with Soll, Psalm 119: Matrix, Form, and Setting (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1991), 35.

3NASB95

4While some do not see any coherence withing this psalm, after studying it I believe there is a great deal of coherence, and that the understanding of which will greatly aid my audience in their understanding of the text. So I have decided to include parts of the psalm outside my original text in order to give them a better understanding of the flow and thought of the psalm.

5It is legitimate to refer generally to the “Word of God” when the psalm uses any one of the eight torah terms based on the fact that the psalmist’s usage of those terms to convey Scripture as a whole unit as understood by George J Zemek, The Word of God in the Child of God: Exegetical, Theological and Homiletical Reflections from the 119th Psalm (Mango, FL: s.n, 1998) 50.

6This is a translation issue, but based on the context, the most simple reading seems to be that the antecedent of the 3pc suffix on עמד is “the heavens” and “earth” and not “all things” or God’s “ordinances.” This translation is backed by multiple commentators including Soll, “Psalm 119,” p. 192 and Zemek, “The Word of God,” p. 222.

Bibliography

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Sandy, D. Brent, and Ronald L. Giese, Jr., eds. Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995.

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Soll, Will. Psalm 119: Matrix, Form, and Setting. Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1991.

Spurgeon, C. H. The Golden Alphabet of the Praises of Holy Scripture: Setting Forth the Believer’s Delight in the Word of the Lord ; Being a Devotional Commentary Upon the One Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm. London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1898.

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Zemek, George J. The Word of God in the Child of God: Exegetical, Theological and Homiletical Reflections from the 119th Psalm. Mango, FL: 1998.

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